Looking to leave your cramped, expensive living space to work from home permanently? We've done the research, and these are the US and Canadian cities that provide the best balance of affordability, livability, and connectivity.
The COVID-fueled remote work boom is driving many North Americans to find new, more affordable homes. In November, rents for studio apartments in San Francisco plummeted by 35% year over year, according to The Real Deal; rents on high-priced apartments in New York City are also falling, the New York Times reported.
If you can work anywhere, though, where should you go? We gathered data from Ookla Speedtest, BestPlaces.net, and BroadbandNow to find 50 US and 10 Canadian towns and cities with affordable housing, fast gigabit, reasonably priced internet connections, and remote-work-friendly lifestyles. Our list contains big cities, suburbs, and small towns, all with median house prices under $500,000—and even some under $100,000. San Francisco, New York, Toronto, and Vancouver didn't make the list.
Remote work isn’t a brand-new phenomenon; the number of people working from home has been trending upward for years. The US Census has reported an increase in work-from-home folks every year since 2010, growing from 4.3% of Americans in 2010 to 5.7% in 2019. But of course, the pandemic accelerated that growth. By mid-June of 2020, Statista reported, up to 11.2% of workers in various industries were staying home, and 22% of workers said they'd be interested in working from home permanently.
Canada reacted more quickly and intensely to the pandemic than the US did. By May, Statistics Canada estimated that in theory, 38.9% of Canadians could work from home, and that during the country's March lockdown, just about that many were at home. Remote-worker jobs, as expected, cluster in information- and communication-based industries.
"Most jobs in finance and insurance (85%), educational services (85%), and professional, scientific and technical services (84%) can potentially be performed from home while those in accommodation and food services (6%) and agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (4%) have almost no telework capacity," Statistics Canada said.
Get the Gig
To gauge the remote-working potential of towns, we started with gigabit connections. BroadbandNow says that about 56% of the US can get gigabit internet now, but it's not always affordable, and it doesn't always give you the upload speeds you need for true remote working.
Fiber is the gold standard, in part because it's more often symmetrical: Many cable service plans offer massively better download speeds than upload speeds. They generally advertise only their download speeds, which made more sense when the internet world was watching a ton of Netflix but not doing as much two-way video calling. ISPs may have had another reason not to particularly prioritize uploads: before COVID-19, BitTorrent made up 27% of global upstream traffic, according to Sandvine. BitTorrent is a headache for ISPs because it is frequently used to share copyrighted media.
The pandemic changed that game. According to a May report from Sandvine, between Feb. 1 and Apr. 19, upstream traffic increased by 121% while downstream traffic increased by only 23%. All of your Zoom calls and Google file uploads make it more important than ever to have fast upload speeds.
Do you need gigabit internet for work and school? According to specs, not really. Four Zoom streams need a total of only 12Mbps up and down, according to Zoom. Various sites estimate a 4K video stream to consume about 25Mbps of bandwidth; game-streaming service Google Stadia wants 35Mbps for 4K HDR. So in theory, a 100Mbps internet connection should be fine for most families.
That's not always the case, for various reasons. Cable and wireless connections can get congested when lots of people are using them, delivering less than their stated potential. In a connected home, background tasks on multiple smartphones and PCs can also eat up bandwidth. That's why we designated gigabit internet, with at least 800Mbps tested downloads and 200Mbps tested uploads, as our gold standard for a remote-working city.
The Super Cities
Our number-one remote-working town in the US is Chattanooga, known as "Gig City," which rolled out a citywide fiber network in 2010. As we recounted in a 2018 story, Chattanooga has been pushing hard to attract tech workers and companies based on its affordable real estate, business-friendly administrations, and widely available broadband internet. In 2019, according to the Census, 6.8% of Hamilton County, TN residents worked from home, compared with 5.7% of all Americans.
"In 2020, it was evident that Chattanooga has been able to attract talent from major cities and companies. I've run into folks who work for Spotify, Stripe, Netflix, et al. The quality of life was a major reason many of these folks moved from places like NYC, SF, LA, and more," venture capitalist Santosh Sankar of Dynamo Management Co. in Chattanooga told us.
Southern Vermont locales also place highly in our ranking, with Pawlet at number three and Springfield at number 9, thanks to the efforts of the Vermont Telephone Company to revitalize 14 villages by wiring them with fiber. Nearby Mount Holly would also have placed on the list, but it was too close to the other two towns. Vtel's president, Michael Guite, said the company started by wiring the local library with fiber in 2008 and took its connections to 18,000 homes by 2016.
Matt Dunne, the executive director of the local Foundation for Rural Innovation, said potential Vermonters should look beyond the well-known, hipper towns to find values in Vtel's service area.
"Springfield actually has a lot of beautiful buildings available for purchase. Places more associated with resorts or second homes have more of a housing crunch," he said.
Our list prioritizes places with large homes (such as number four, Kaysville, UT, where the average home has 8.2 rooms), but that's not what everyone's looking for. Remote worker Catherine Gellatly prioritizes access to nature. She splits her time working for the New York Code & Theory between her 450-square-foot Vermont house and BRIC, a co-working space in Springfield. "I have found working from BRIC to be the best way for me to keep my home and work lives enjoyable and the boundary less blurred," she said.
The Workhorse space in Chattanooga provides gigabit internet and a desk for $57 per month—a tiny fraction of the $480 per month WeWork charges at their space nearest PCMag’s former office in Manhattan. Even Chattanooga’s fancier Society of Work charges only $150 per month.
Smaller cities and towns dominate our list, but two big cities, Philadelphia (11) and Phoenix (37), made the cut. Philadelphia, home to cable provider Comcast, is a destination for New Yorkers looking for lower-cost living in a similar city atmosphere, according to a local CBS report from September.
If a particular part of the country appeals to you, check out towns near our top choices. Lenexa, KS (12), was just the top one of many Kansas City suburbs that could have made our list. Montour Falls, NY (40), is one of several towns in the beautiful Finger Lakes region served by a fast, affordable local ISP, Empire Access.
If You Prefer It Up North…
In Canada, Atlantic Canada provides the best value for your loonie. The Francophone town of Dieppe, NB, just east of Moncton, scores at the top of our Canadian list, which you'll find in ranked order right after the 50 American cities. Several suburban parts of Halifax (2) come just behind Dieppe. Their strength is the combination of much lower real estate prices than Canada's major centers and the availability of Bell's superior 1.5Gbps Fibe Internet.
"We launched Gigabit Fibe Internet service in more than 100 communities across Atlantic Canada in the fall of 2015, boosting speeds to 1.5Gbps in 2018. We now reach nearly 100% of homes and businesses in Dieppe and about 90% throughout [Halifax] with direct connections to our all-fiber network. Subscribers have increased almost tenfold in the last three years, with Gigabit+ subscriptions more than doubling," Bell's Nathan Gibson told us.
Diversity is a big strength in the greater Moncton area, where Venn Innovation runs a “clubhouse” for a tech sector that started out with companies in the gambling industry and then expanded to call-center and back-office businesses after fiber came to town.
"Atlantic Canada has been very aggressive going after that international talent," said Doug Robertson, Venn’s CEO. "You can see the diversity out on the streets, you can see it in businesses, and you can see it in educational institutions. The Greater Moncton area is more diverse because of its linguistic duality and the history of its strong French-English balance."
Ready to relocate? Browse through our 60 city and town profiles by clicking the cities on the map or selecting them from the list below the map to see what appeals to you. (Note that all broadband prices are per month.)
Our Testing Methodology
We started with a few lists. One list, from Ookla Speedtest, comprises cities where the experts at Speedtest found common or frequent home gigabit internet usage in their crowdsourced database. Just having gigabit available wasn’t enough to qualify; Ookla required evidence that a significant number of households were receiving and using true gigabit speeds. We folded in our 25 best cities and small towns for remote working from preliminary stories we wrote last year, along with a few other places suggested by our editors. We removed places that weren't actually towns: military bases, for instance, and church communities.
BestPlaces.net ranks US cities and towns based on amenities and attractive factors. BestPlaces.net data includes median home values; whether the city is near a coastline or mountains; and coffee shops, parks, and non-chain restaurants in the area.
BroadbandNow is the nation's best website for comparing broadband prices. It gave us the names of gigabit home broadband providers in each town and their lowest monthly fees.
The US Census American Community Survey measures many aspects of American living. The 2018 5-year ACS tables provided the median home size, percentage of home-based workers, and percentage of people in the arts, education, and healthcare. If the Census did not have data for a place, we took the data for the five-digit ZIP code assigned to that place.
Here's why we selected the criteria we used. First, we included only those cities with median home values below $500,000. If you want to find a beautiful, expensive house in cities on our list, you can; we just wanted to make sure they also have affordable housing.
50% of our score is affordability.
50% of our score is livability.
We then put the whole thing into an Excel blender. The points were added up, and the locations were ranked on their total scores.
Some "municipalities" are, for all intents and purposes, just neighborhoods in a larger city that for some reason kept their technical independence. We excluded any such location whose larger neighbor was not also on the list.
If two places on the list were within 50 miles of each other, we consolidated or eliminated adjacent places. That gave us some more geographic diversity and prevented the list from being cluttered by a cluster of similar small municipalities near one another.
Our methodology was somewhat different for Canada, where we used Ookla's data, pricing information direct from broadband providers, and demographic details from Statcan. In Canada we balanced broadband costs; a town's median income; average rooms per dwelling; households with postsecondary certificates; the percentage of people who spent less than 30% of their income on shelter costs; the percentage of people working in arts and culture; the number of independent coffee shops in town; and how close the town is to a major city.
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